One of the largest draw cards for many visitors to South Africa is the opportunity to have a close encounter with animals in the wild. The country is home to a large variety of creatures, great and small, but has grown particularly popular for its abundance of big cats in the wild – lion, cheetah, leopard and caracal. In this post, we’ll be looking at the best places to see leopards in South Africa.

The leopard, the smallest of the Panthera family of cats, is a shy creature that tends to carry out most of its activities after dusk – which makes night time safari drives all the more exciting! As a strategic, solitary and powerful hunter, this nocturnal predator is at the top of its game, reaching speeds of up to 58 km per hour when necessary. They are smart and know when they’ve met their match, in other words they will not risk injuring themsleves in a scuffle with another predator like a hyena. Adept climbers, leopards will drag their kill high into the trees to protect them from scavengers.

With so many national parks and game reserves located in one country, it’s hard to choose which one to visit. We have narrowed down the list to the top three regions where these incredible cats, that are masters of stealth and camouflage, can be seen.

Leopard in the night.
Leopards are nocturnal and thrive under cover of darkness.

Sabi Sands Game Reserve

The Sabi Sands Game Reserve is well-known as one of the best places to embark on an authentic African safari. It is also the best place to view these elusive cats. Located adjacent to the Kruger National Park, The Sabi Sands shares an unfenced border with the Kruger, allowing the animals to truly roam free. The highlight of a Sabi Sands safari is the extremely private nature of the tours. Wildlife enthusiasts and professional photographers will be thrilled by the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Big Five and in particular leopards from the safety of an open vehicle and in the company of a private ranger and tracker. While sightings can never be guaranteed, in the Sabi Sands, we can safely say that on a three night stay, you will more than likely encounter one of these mesmerizing animals.

Where to stay

Accommodation at the most exclusive game reserve in the country is entirely of the luxurious kind. Lodges such as Mala Mala, Singita and Lion Sands are but a few of Sabi Sands’ premier lodgings. Our favourite accommodations are the Londolozi camps which provide a superlative tailor-made safari experience. Steeped in history and deeply committed to the land and the animals, the folks at Londolozi are all about leopards and have gone to great effort to document the local population – truly a leopard love affair! Regardless of which camp you choose in the Londolozi Game Reserve, you can be assured that an encounter with one of these feline beauties is on the cards.

Londolozi Game Reserve Deck
Sit back and try spot leopards from your private deck at Londolozi Game Reserve.

Madikwe Game Reserve

One of the best kept secrets in the safari world is the Madikwe Game Reserve. Few know about this diamond in the rough, and therein lies its inexplicable charm. Located in the North West of South Africa, near the Botswana border, the Madikwe is synonymous with another elusive animal, the Wild Dog. This increasingly popular reserve is capturing our imagination and we are getting regular feedback of good sightings of not only Wild Dog, but all of the Big Five and of course our favourite spotty cats!

Where to stay

We suggest staying at the Jamala Madikwe. This lodge is the quintessence of luxury but maintains its intimate atmosphere largely due to Rodney, the owner, who goes out of his way to ensure a good stay. One of the highlights at Jamala Madikwe is the proximity of the waterhole. Guests have relayed stories of being able to sit on their private deck (or even in bed!) and watch leopards come to drink.

The Jamala Madikwe Main Building
The Jamala Madikwe Main Building.

Phinda Private Game Reserve

Set in KwaZulu-Natal only a short drive away from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, Phinda Private Game Reserve is a remarkable for its abundance of wildlife and pristine bushveld. Besides having a good chance of seeing leopard here, cat lovers will be happy to know that cheetah are common here too. With space to run like the wind and an abundance of antelope herds, our feline predators thrive here.

Where to stay

Our choice is, without a doubt, &Beyond Phinda Rock Lodge. This luxury safari lodge with just six suites is nestled snuggly up against a cliff with stunning views out across the reserve to the aptly named Leopard Rock. The vegetation and lay of the land here is perfect leopard territory.

Sunset at Phinda Rock Lodge
Spectacular sunset from Phinda Rock Lodge.

Western Cape

Many visitors head straight to the north when seeking a glimpse of these elusive cats, but few realise that the Western Cape is home to many leopards. The Cape Leopards tend to find home in the more mountainous regions but are not seen as often as their northern counterparts due to the scourge of hunting so prolific in the region. Unsurprisingly, the leopards in the south are not as accustomed to human contact and are less easily approachable. Such noble organisations such as the Cape Leopard Trust and the Landmark Foundation are making great strides in changing this troubling trend. Through education programmes in local schools and on farms, these organisations are helping reduce the number of traps set by farmers protecting their livestock so that these graceful and powerful animals may be preserved for future generations.

Leopard mother and cub
Leopard mother and cub relax in the long grass.

If you also want to cross elephants and giraffes off on your safari spotting checklist be sure to read our articles on the top destinations to see elephants and giraffes.